Te Arai Links, New Zealand’s newest seaside showstopper, might just be the new standard for stay-and-play golf moving forward.
When it comes to golf course design, sometimes a site is so good that you know if you don’t create something that’s extraordinary, you’ve failed as an architect. Such was the conundrum faced by American designer Bill Coore when he first set foot on the sprawling duneland of Te Arai Links, 90 minutes north of Auckland, to map out its jaw-dropping South course.
“It’s one of those extraordinary sites where, if you’re in the golf business, you could only wish for,” says Coore, one half of the dynamic Coore & Crenshaw design firm. “Obviously, Ben [Crenshaw] and I have been so fortunate through the years to get truly special sites to work with, and this is without question one of them.” ▶ ▶ ▶
It was a similar scenario for Coore’s countryman Tom Doak, who was charged with adding a second batch of 18 holes on the same property just to the north. Naturally, Doak had to be prepared for the inevitable comparisons that would come his way while building the site’s North course.
“To be honest, for this course to be spoken of equally, alongside the South course, we felt we had to do more with the golf,” Doak reveals. “This is legitimately great inland terrain – pure sand and dunesy, with big undulations. But we couldn’t rely on that. We agreed that if we’re going to produce something different, we should probably be a bit edgier. The overall shaping, greens and fairways, speak to that, I think.”
Doak didn’t have anyone else to blame for such lofty expectations being put on the Te Arai Links project. Sitting a few minutes further down the beach is another otherworldly creation with his fingerprints all over it, which just happens to be New Zealand’s No.1-ranked golf course. Tara Iti, the ultra-private links wonderland that regularly features high on global rankings, was the inspiration for what will be a far more accessible alternative for golfers travelling from all corners of the globe.
Build it and they will come
Te Arai (pronounced similar to “T-R-E”) is the vision of a group of investors led by Tara Iti founder Richard Kayne, founder and co-chairman of Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors, a Los Angeles-based manager of alternative investment strategies, and Jim Rohrstaff, a golf-industry veteran and Michigan native who relocated his family to Auckland. Both men are now fully fledged New Zealand citizens and, having sampled life in this part of the world, it’s not hard to see why.
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Te Arai is pure sand with dunes and gorgeous natural movement. As Coore puts it, “it’s highly, highly gifted for golf.”
Coore, of course, is familiar to many for his work at Lost Farm in Tasmania, Cabot Cliffs in Canada and American wonderlands Streamsong Red and Sand Hills. Suffice to say, he knows a thing or two about ambition.
“The potential of the site at Te Arai Links is so extreme that it carries with it a bit of stress and uncertainty, which is not a bad thing,” Coore said during the build.
Today, it occupies very real, established space in the golf world. Like Sand Hills, it’s scarcely possible for someone who plays the game to look at the property and not see golf. Like Tasmania’s latest project at Seven Mile Beach, removing hundreds of pine trees was like peeling back the curtain on the most incredible canvas for a golf artist.
At Te Arai, Coore walked the place repeatedly, as is his custom, to find the most interesting features and combination of holes that might maximise the “gifted” terrain. The section he chose runs primarily parallel to the coastline between the water’s edge and a large primary dune several hundred metres inland with the flow moving north and south. In the routing he assembled, all the holes but one, the par-4, Cape-like second, have some view of the sea, and most look right down on it.
“Unlike classic links courses, where the closer you get to the ocean the less you see of it because the large dunes close to the beach hide the view,” Coore says, “the dune formations at Te Arai cascade from high on down to the water, and you see the ocean from everywhere.”
Getting over the high dune from the inland clubhouse setting where the South course begins was challenging – there were no natural gaps or ways to flank it as there was at Bandon Trails in Oregon, for instance, where the routing turns sharply around the corner of a steep ridge as it breaks between the sixth and seventh holes. At Te Arai Links, the routing punches through the ridge at the short par-4 third that plays towards the base of the dune, then rises sharply upwards where Coore’s two primary shapers on the project, Riley Johns and John Hawker, carved out a punchbowl green, effectively creating passage. Players can lay up to the base of the hill and then pitch up to the green over the cornice, or swing away for the green from the tee. Coore says that anything that clears the high, front edge will rattle and roll around the bowl and probably end up on the green.
The next tee begins an epic three-hole stretch that had our editors coming back for more. The fourth hole might be one of the world’s great par 4s once those with ranking influence play it. A spectacular downhill, dogleg to the right with ocean in the distance and pines on either side is matched by a funky plateaued landing zone that makes your drive’s final resting position somewhat of a lottery. But boy it’s fun – and beautiful.
When we stepped on the next tee – the par-3 fifth – we were greeted with a stunning rainbow, almost haloing the target ahead as if to say, ‘Welcome to golf heaven, friends.’ It proved a great omen – and memorable photo [image below].
Another thrilling shot awaits you on the sixth. Coore found a prominent natural finger of the primary dune, some 15 feet tall, that extended perpendicular towards the water. Johns and Hawker shaped a large Big Bertha bunker into the face of it – the terrifying but rewarding line of play on the drive is directly over the top. Such a strong, heroic feature was too good not to utilise. But other parts of the course are equally sublime, like the greens at the par-5 seventh and the par 3s at holes five and eight, which sit low and tie in with the natural grade.
“I remember different folks have talked about great sites, whether it’s the Sand Hills or the Bandon sites, and about not just how special they’ve been but how much fun it must be to work on them,” Coore says. “And there’s no question it’s a great deal of fun. But at the same time, sometimes the site is so good that you know if you don’t create something that’s extraordinary, you’ve failed.”
Thankfully, Coore scored an A+ with the South course, embodying all the desires for old-time golf and travel and anticipation that Sand Hills resurrected when it opened more than 25 years ago – timeless qualities that had nevertheless fallen dormant for a long period of time.
“You can’t help but go to a site like at Te Arai Links and not think about golf hundreds of years ago. If we’re not careful the worst thing we can do is diminish it,” he says. “We tried to build a course that’s at least equal to the site on which it’s located.”
Another diamond on Doak’s résumé
Most sequels fail to live up to the original. Doak and the team at Renaissance Golf Design set about bucking that trend by fashioning Te Arai Links’ North course in the shadow of their own work: Tara Iti Golf Club.
But, while Tara Iti takes in some extraordinary ocean views and leaves you exposed to the elements, the North course channels more Pine Valley than Pebble Beach, with several holes taking you on a remarkable inland sojourn through towering pines and treacherous green complexes, before bringing you back towards the ‘money shot’ at the end.
Arguably the most sought-after course architect in the world, Doak stands by his latest work and the decision to steer away from the spectacular coastline.
“It feels a bit weird to apologise for having seven holes on the ocean, especially when the rest of our North Course plays through terrain where the best comp. might be Pine Valley,” Doak says. “At Tara Iti, you’re looking at the Pacific Ocean from every hole. On Bill’s course, all but the first few holes play directly at seaside. That’s just the reality down here, yet everyone is pleased with the way the North course stands on its own, beside each of these world-class golf courses.
“We honestly didn’t feel we were competing with Tara Iti or the South course. But we did want the North course to be different – and fun. We’re quite certain that we succeeded on both counts.”
Indeed, he did. Doak’s 6,338-metre, par-71 North course opens and closes at seaside, with another sweep down to the Pacific Ocean at holes eight and nine. Elsewhere, the unique routing explores what had been a pine forest set on dunes high above the beach. Doak spent months on site – personally shaping green complexes and fairway features behind the controls of a bulldozer. Typically, the award-winning architect jets into a project, inspects and suggests for several days, then leaves the earthmoving to his long-time associates in the Renaissance shaping and construction crews. However, because the North course took shape during the COVID-19 pandemic, Doak travelled to New Zealand in the spring of 2022, and stayed for two full months. The upshot of this arrangement, as fans of his work might suspect, is out of this world.
“I’m still not that great on the dozer, but I do love it,” Doak says. “Some of the results are pretty wild, like the greens at seven and four. Maybe too severe at first glance. But in the end, they looked really cool and we all agreed: let’s keep that.”
The routing includes several world-class seaside holes – including the jaw-dropping par-3 17th, and a par-5 closer that tracks the shoreline all the way home. Throughout the routing, Doak and his fellow shapers Angela Moser, Clyde Johnson and lead associate Brian Slawnik (who also shaped Tara Iti) each managed to create exquisite, dramatic, flamboyant features.
When discussing the North course, however, the inland holes are what Doak hangs his hat on – especially those that occupy a massive valley in the middle of the routing.
“Before we moved any dirt, we all identified that natural bowl and I think we used it very well. I really like how the holes in there, four through seven, came out. All of them. Eight plays down to the water from the edge of that bowl, and I love the way nine comes back uphill into the bowl. Really cool, with a blind approach – over a road! The last 150 yards of that par 5 are just awesome.”
The reality is, everything on the North course remains very close to the ocean. On any given day, each of the 18 holes can play completely differently depending on wind direction. As Doak says, that’s what golf by the sea is all about.
Visitors will have more than great Doak holes to savour, too. They’ll even get a peek into the rich history of the land the North course sits on. Doak and his team discovered, preserved and now proudly showcase a former Māori fort, a defensive fortification known as a pa, between the fifth tee and sixth green. It’s one of the countless mind-blowing sights you’ll take in during your round.
Come for the golf, stay for something even better
Is it possible a property that may already boast the country’s two best public golf courses, be equally, if not more impressive off its fairways? The message from its owners is: watch this space.
The South course at Te Arai Links, the South Clubhouse, Ric’s Pizza Barn and The Playground – the resort’s huge, two-acre putting course and beating communal heart – have all been operational for a year now. The same is true for Te Arai’s collection of luxury two-bedroom cottages and suites, all of them deftly camouflaged by the surrounding dunescape.
But it’s what is still to come that should have travelling golfers licking their lips in anticipation. The North course’s recent opening underlined the concerted, ongoing development progress at Te Arai Links. A dedicated clubhouse serving the North course will open in October 2024. The Ocean Restaurant – overlooking the 18th hole on the South course – will be christened simultaneously. Fully accoutred halfway houses on both courses are scheduled to come online very soon, while the members-only Bunker Bar, buried in a dune on the North course’s 18th hole, will open in early 2024. There’s also private yoga and pilates classes, massage and beauty treatments, horse riding, fishing charters and a wide range of water sports available for guests.
Te Arai Links also offers membership, where they and resort guests toggle between the two 18-hole layouts depending on the day of the week.
All and all, it’s a project that’s coming together exactly as planned for Rohrstaff and his team. “The physical, linksland attributes of this property obviously enable what we’re creating here,” said Rohrstaff, who also owns Auckland-based real estate brokerage, Legacy Partners, and directs property matters at Te Arai Links and Tara Iti.
“Other natural factors also play to our strengths: winter in the Northern Hemisphere is high summer down here, meaning longer, warmer days you just won’t find wintering in places like Palm Springs or Florida, for example. Folks may not realise that this portion of New Zealand’s North Island is sub-tropical, so even the ‘winter months’ of June, July and August feel pretty darned summery to anyone visiting from North America, East Asia or Europe.
“And with the potential change in government, the idea of foreigners buying a slice of this paradise, here in New Zealand, could well become a reality.”
As for the golf itself, it’s mission accomplished.
“It’s honestly a dream come true, for our entire team to have all 36 holes in play,” Rohrstaff adds.
“Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have each done such incredible jobs designing these two golf courses. Their work has exceeded our expectations. Yet we’re equally proud of the casual, inclusive vibe that prevails here. We wanted Te Arai Links to feel different – to welcome and engage travelling golfers but also non-golfers, spouses and kids. It really does, and that’s rare.”
With two world-class courses on the menu, it begs the inevitable question of Te Arai Links patrons: “What’s your preference, North or South?” That’s a choice you can deliberate on over a meal at Ric’s restaurant or a slippery 10-footer on The Playground – the world’s largest putting green – with beverage in hand. On this important, potentially divisive matter, Rohrstaff offered up some sage, in-house counsel: “Play them both. Then decide for yourself.”
“We talk about it all the time,” Rohrstaff says before pausing over a trademark spicy margarita from the bar. “This is what God meant by golf land.”
Images by Ricky Robinson, Nick Wall